If we're being honest, it hasn't been a good season for Columbus Crew SC. Has the team played well at times, for certain stretches? Yes, but for a club that hosted the MLS Cup Final last December and returned all of the key pieces, a few good moments isn't good enough.
Some of that can be blamed on the loss of Kei Kamara. While it could be argued that the Black & Gold became too reliant on the star striker before trading him to the New England Revolution, his absence has created an offensive void that a slightly improved defense has not been able to overcome and that is part of the reason why the club sits one spot clear of the Eastern Conference basement.
Hard times could very well be continuing Saturday, considering the New York Red Bulls, who sit in second place in the East, decided to rest its star striker and attacking midfielder in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan for much of the team's mid-week loss to Real Salt Lake, instead subbing the pair in late.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter doesn't read much into the Red Bulls losing 2-1, nor does he think the quick turnaround will adversely affect New York. RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch gambled with a lesser lineup against a Western Conference opponent and it didn't pan out, leaving them with a strategic defeat and a healthy 11 for Saturday's match at MAPFRE Stadium.
"I think it's a smart play," Berhalter said Thursday. "They have much less to lose against Salt Lake than they do against us. And you know, they're in good form, it's a good, good opportunity to give other guys games, keep other guys tuned in. I think it's a smart move. We did something similar last year in Vancouver, so I'm all for that."
If anything, Berhalter is expecting a toughly contested match in an environment he hopes will lift a reimagined Columbus side over its favored enemy.
"There's no secret that we perform better when we have more fans in the building," the head coach said of the expectedly sold out MAFPRE. "And our fans are great, and when that stadium's filled, it's a very difficult place to play. And that's what we want. I mean, that's what soccer's all about. You know, when you look at these clubs around the world, the ones that stand out are the ones that have great home fans. And that's what we aspire to have. We want to play attractive soccer and we want to give the fans something to be proud of."
Tactically, Berhalter also welcomes the challenge of gameplanning for what New York brings.
"I like playing against the Red Bulls because I have a lot of respect for what they do," he explained. "I think it always presents a challenge to our group. It always presents new possibilities and new opportunities. And to me, it makes for good games. You know, we've altered, slightly altered the way we've played three times against them and had different effects. It's what teams at the high level, it's what they do... And so I'm excited about it. I think it will be a good test for this group at this stage."
With New York's ability to use a resourceful Wright-Phillips, a red-hot Kljestan and the helmsmanship of Dax McCarty in their full-strength lineup, Columbus has its hands full, regardless of the adjustments the home club is able to make Saturday.
Though discussing many of the offensive questions still needing to be answered for Columbus requires a preponderance of focus, much of the Black & Gold's ability to get a decisive result Saturday will hinge on whether Michael Parkhurst and the Black & Gold defense can reprise an excellent performance hindering Didier Drogba last week.
"Bradley's a little bit different of a player," center midfielder Wil Trapp said in discussing a comparison of the two strikers and how Crew SC scouts them. "I thought we did a good job of limiting Didier's touches ... [and] back-pressing, as well as Michael being clever with not getting too touch-tight with him. Michael's very good at being clever in his movement, and I thought Tyson, as well, was excellent in his communication.
"We're going to need the same [again] ... He (Wright-Phillips) is not as physical as Drogba is, but he makes clever runs and his teammates like to find him."
After defeating the Red Bulls in last year's Eastern Conference Final, the New York club will look for blood in its lone trip to Columbus. That does not mean Crew SC cannot help turn things around with a win in this match, and that's what winger Ethan Finlay is hoping for.
"That's a rival of ours," he said of Red Bull. "That's a team that we, you know, we knocked them out of obviously the playoffs last year and they want revenge and I think, you know, I'm excited going forward."